It’s become almost impossible to go a day without seeing #bodypositive, #selflove, #mentalhealth, or #goodvibes. Frequently shared alongside these hashtags in our social media universe are photos of smiling individuals of various shapes and sizes. These posts are well-intended, often with the goal of promoting self-love, confidence, and body acceptance. In reality, though, the body-positive movement as it stands is rather harmful.
Depending on who you ask, the goals of the body-positive movement vary: it seems to be about diversifying which body types are hypervisible, promoting self-love, addressing unrealistic beauty standards, and encouraging self-acceptance regardless of appearance. The body-positive movement is closely tied to the Health at Every Size movement of the 1960s, whose initial goal was to make people aware of how overweight and/or obese bodies are stigmatized. As one man wrote in 1967, “the waistline has in some ways replaced the accent as a handy guide to class.”
But modern variations of fat acceptance have blurred the lines between influencer culture and genuinely inclusive values. The current wave of the body-positive movement began in 2012, as influencer culture began taking hold of it. Similar to other social justice issues of our generation, capitalism benefits greatly from joining in on the body-positive discussion. Corporations feed off of consumers’ vulnerabilities, particularly if they’re able to market themselves as agents of social change. Perhaps the first example of this in the context of the body-positivity movement is in Dove’s 2005 Real Beauty campaign—writer Lindsey Morel even went so far as to call it “advertising brilliance.” Brilliant, yes—but was Dove actually trying to help anyone?
In the age of striving for authenticity, Dove talks the talk while barely walking the walk. Perhaps one of the strongest criticisms against the Dove Real Beauty campaign is that it "[espouses] respect for diversity, yet in key decisions [parallels] dominant prejudices." After all, the campaign doesn’t feature disabled models, even though some 36 million women in the United States live with a diagnosed disability—and that number continues to grow with each passing year. In their casting calls, Dove specifically asks for women with “no tattoos, no scars, flawless skin, beautiful hair, and bodies that fall nicely between ‘not too curvy’ and ‘not too athletic.”
Dove more recently released its Self-Esteem Project, which offers a variety of tools to help “young women overcome body-image issues and fulfill their potential,” according to a mission statement released by the company. While campaigns such as Dove’s appear to be championing change, these corporations benefit greatly from the ongoing uneven power differentials they intentionally create. On a superficial level, Dove appears to be about leveling the playing field in terms of self-acceptance. In reality, Dove positions itself to influence the way people see themselves. They decide what constitutes a “real woman.” The company needs you to believe that their products will help you reach their standard of womanhood—and that their products will help you maintain it.
The body-positive movement’s expansion across social media drives the attention away from individual experience and toward a narrative that there’s a “right” state of self-acceptance to be reached. While there may be a diversity of physical bodies represented in the movement, the mental and emotional states shared express no realistic or healthy ideal.
Beyond the co-opting of a movement for corporate gain, the modern iteration of body positivity fails to address any underlying traumatic elements that play into body-image distress. No one enters the world with the belief that their body is inherently flawed. Negative body image is learned, and in part stems from personal, generational, and collective trauma. These issues should not be taken lightly. Gaining awareness of and healing from these issues often requires professional support that cannot be communicated through a Dove press release or 400-word Instagram caption. Without addressing the underlying trauma related to body dissatisfaction, we further perpetuate the power these experiences hold over us.
How much more refreshing and empowering of a place would social media be if we chose to use it as a platform for expressing who we are and what we love about being alive? Perhaps true body positivity is about body neutrality—the notion that we can exist in our bodies without giving them much thought. We can choose to celebrate our bodies for the amazing vessels they are.
It might be helpful to focus on the underlying belief systems surrounding negative thoughts, rather than attempting to squish negative thinking itself. Instead of attempting to brainwash ourselves with mantras we don’t even believe in, we can ask—where do I think this negative thought is coming from? What underlying belief does this thought support? How can I prove this to be true? To be untrue? Do I hold others to this standard? Do I even believe what it is I’m thinking? How does thinking this negative thought serve me?
It would be rather unhealthy if we never had any so-called “negative” thoughts about ourselves or the ways we perceived the world, as these experiences indicate potential areas for growth, accountability, and change. The “just think positive” narrative prevents people from seeing their blind spots, and in turn, blocks their authentic growth.
A more compassionate approach to body-positivity is possible. Genuine body positivity stems from a place of tremendous self-love, not self-hatred or shame—and that’s something only we alone can cultivate for ourselves. Just as there is nothing fundamentally wrong with our physical bodies, there is nothing inherently wrong with our minds. Developing a healthy, supportive internal belief system is an ongoing process—for everyone.